3 Main Differences between SEO and SEM

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Search engine optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) have been confused by many. Both are similar as they ultimately help to drive up traffic, and increase ranking of your articles and website. However, did you know that they are very different?  We will present to you some of their key differences. 

1. Main Goals  

Firstly, search engine optimisation’s goal is to optimise the ranking in search engines, increase the quantity and quality of traffic to your website. To do so, we need to use popular organic keywords. With SEO, organic results are 8.5 times more likely to be clicked as visitors are now seeing the difference between organic and sponsored results. 

On the other hand, search engine marketing requires paying fees to increase your visibility in search engines  more quickly. For example, the paid advertisements on Google’s search engine are results of search engine marketing.

2. Price to Pay 

Secondly, there is difference in the price to pay for these two strategies. For SEO, it is free. Compared to SEO, SEM is more expensive. There are different ways to pay for an advertisement in search engine. Notably, one of the more popular methods is Pay Per Click (PPC).

In short, PPC is a “Click and Pay” model. Advertisers need to pay each time any of their advertisements are clicked. In return, they collect greater traffic to their sites, generate more potential interest and more potential customers. As mentioned previously, this is one of the ways to “buy visits” instead of “organically earn visits”.  Why would companies bid and buy? When PPC is working correctly, the fee is small as compared to the closed sale. With this reason, it makes the visit worth more than what has been paid.

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3.  Type of Strategy 

Thirdly, SEO is a longer term strategy compared to SEM. With SEO, the leads generated have a 14.6% close rate, which is almost 14 times the closing rate of outbound leads! This helps in building credibility through organic searches. With an established credibility, the business is likely more sustainable in the long run. Although close to 40% recognise SEO as one of the most difficult methods, close to 50% agree that SEO is by far one of the most effective tactics. 

On the contrary, SEM is a short term marketing strategy. 

Research has shown that SEM accounts for the biggest share of online advertising budgets. Then again, SEM is able to quickly reach many people, building brand awareness and instant visibility. It is also recommended to use SEM if businesses want to gain greater exposure for their special promos or events. Therefore, SEM is great as a short term strategy to spurt the company’s presence online.

To demonstrate, 30% of startups use SEO for marketing while only 12% use PPC ads, which is part of SEM. 


In summary, both search engine optimisation and search engine marketing are effective ways to manage your visibility online. However, do note their differences in the following aspects: main goal, price and type of strategy. Therefore, we encourage businesses to use SEO or SEM based on phase of business, instead of the instant result gratification.  

Stay tuned for more sharing of SEO insights on the SMMILE blog.

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Smmile is a Digital Marketing Agency in Singapore with over 10 years of experience in the industry.